By Petrus Liu
Reviewed by Wenqing Kang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2023)
Queer theory emerged in the early 1990s to challenge social norms and move beyond LGBT identity politics. In recent years in the US, however, it has become a tool for advocating gender and sexual diversity and equal representation. Petrus Liu’s The Specter of Materialism: Queer Theory and Marxism in the Age of the Beijing Consensus is an imaginative intervention that aims to transform the field into a Queer Marxist critique of capitalism on a global scale.
Since its inception with Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, queer theory has tended to treat the non-western world such as China as “the other” and deny its coevality in order to establish modern western sexual identity as the historical vanguard. In an earlier work, “Why Does Queer Theory Need China?”, Liu pointed out this blind spot and provided a trenchant critique of this Orientalist and Western-centric mode of thought. Although queer theory should not use China as the other, the field still needs China to expand its geopolitical scope and make queer theory a tool that can provide a critical understanding of gender and sexuality in contemporary global capitalism. In this new book, Liu makes a persuasive case that China’s recent rise in the capitalist system (i.e., the Beijing Consensus) “presents an opportunity for queer theory to develop a more analytically precise vocabulary (and politics) for deciphering the matrix of gendered life and political economy” (5).
To illustrate his points, Liu advances some critical Marxist thoughts on capitalism. First, he echoes other scholars by insisting that capitalism should be viewed as a global system, as a totality; in his view, China, even during the Mao era (1949-1976), has always been an integral part of this capitalist system. For Liu, the Cold War order, which divided the world into a narrowly defined capitalist part and a putatively noncapitalist, communist counterpart, was precisely a crucial feature of capitalist accumulation that transformed vast regions and peoples into the sources of cheap labor and raw materials. China’s “reentry” into this capitalist system since its reform and opening policy in the early 1980s is simply a continuation of its previous participation. Second, Liu expands the Marxist idea of subsumption and uses it to connect the issue of gender and sexuality in China to the global political economy. Capitalist accumulation involves subsumptions of social processes in which, Liu argues, human labors were assigned different values and gender and sexuality were normalized and regulated. This kind of process is necessarily obscured and needs Marxist materialist analysis to bring it to light. Through this kind of analytical lens, Liu demonstrates that the recent phenomenon of women migrant workers (打工妹) and money boys (male prostitutes) in China is an effect of the dispossessive logic of capitalism (chapter 1).
The main propose of the book is to develop a materialist critique of capitalism that contemporary queer theory has attempted but not been able to execute. For Liu, materialism is not simply economism, empiricism, or corporal existence; he also argues that queer theory, from its early days, has always been a kind of materialism, despite the common assumption that it was a product of the linguistic turn. The best example is Judith Butler’s conceptualization of gender. Contrary to common interpretations of Gender Trouble, Liu shows that Butler, one of the founding thinkers of queer theory, does not posit gender as a subjective choice of voluntary will; instead, she demonstrates that it is an effect of social structuration (chapter 2). Butler, Liu explains, understands gender as a subjectless formation determined by social forces.
For Liu, this configuration of gender as a subjectless formation is the core of materialist queer Marxism. The iconic modern Chinese writer Lu Xun 鲁迅 shares with Butler a similar understanding of gender formation. He treats the “human subject as an effect of discourse and cultural norms rather than as their sovereign author” (93). By invoking Lu Xun, Liu advances his argument that queer theory is not a monopoly of the West; rather, intellectual thought from other parts of the world has made equally valuable contributions to the field. In chapter 3, Liu produces a creative reading of this most studied writer in modern Chinese literary history. Through his reading of “What Happens after Nora Walks Out” (娜拉走後怎樣) and “New Year’s Sacrifice” (祝福) among other works, Liu demonstrates that Lu Xun does not simply assume women “as a preexisting sociological group” in need of liberation. Instead, his writing performs “a queer subversion of the category of women” (93). More significantly, by situating Lu Xun’s Chinese characters in the global capitalist system, Liu brings to light how gender and sexuality are subsumed by capitalism.
In Liu’s study, gender and sexuality are not the only relations that have been subsumed under global capitalism. Readings that focus on gender and sexuality also bring to the fore other issues that have been obscured by mechanisms of capitalist accumulation. Asia the Invincible (東方不敗) is a minor character that first appeared in Jin Yong’s 金庸 (Louis Cha Leung-yung) martial arts serial novel, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖), in the late 1960s. Asia the Invincible was intended by the author to allegorically “demonize” Mao Zedong, “employing a homophobic/transphobic perspective to depict how Asia becomes a psychologically damaged and sexually aberrant (bunan bunü [不男不女]) monstrosity, the price he pays for his political ambition” (119). Ching Siu-tung 程小東 and Tsui Hark’s 徐克 1992 film adaptation, Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗), however, turned this character into a proud and powerfully agentive “self-affirming transgender woman” who became a Sinosphere “transgender icon” (119); Asia the Invincible’s gender and sexual identity subsequently became a hotly debated issue among queer scholars and LGBTQ activists in Hong Kong and beyond. In chapter 4, Liu illustrates how such debates about gender or sexuality can conceal the history of the Cold War, which was a key component of how capitalism produced geopolitical divisions and value differentiation of labor. In this chapter, Liu makes a major intervention in the conceptualization and historiography of the Cold War. Conventional narratives of the history are blatantly western-centric, beginning with the conclusion of World War II and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In East Asia, Liu avers, the Cold War has never ended. Moreover, the Cold War has transformed into a structure of feeling that is embedded in East Asian consciousness. Tracing the evolution of what the character Asia the Invincible signifies reveals precisely how the Cold War was subsumed by the representational politics of gender and sexuality.
Gender and sexuality do not always appear at the same time. In chapter 5, Liu discloses another mystery: why sexuality is erased from the discourse of gender in contemporary China. Since the beginning of the era of “Reform and Opening Up” (改革開放), and bolstered by the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, feminists in China and elsewhere have actively engaged in the discussion of gender, reevaluating Mao-era policies on women and weighing the usefulness of the western concept. In the course of this process, “gender” became a synonym for “women,” and gender studies was reduced to the evaluation of women’s progress in modern China. In the context of contemporary China, women’s progress means women’s contribution to China’s recent capitalist development. As Liu explains, this did not happen because of a mistranslation. Rather, the erasing of sexuality, and therefore the queer potential of the concept of gender, is an effect of the long history of modern China. Gender has to be understood in relation to the history of China’s search for an alternative path of development and leadership of the third world. This history, in other words, is a history of China’s position in the capitalist world during the age of the Beijing Consensus.
Petrus Liu’s The Specter of Materialism is intellectually courageous and theoretically sophisticated, advancing both queer theory and Marxist thought. This review has only scratched the surface of this paradigm-shifting work. Scholars of queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, Marxism, and China Studies will all find this book indispensable for their fields.
Cleveland State University
 Liu, Petrus. “Why Does Queer Theory Need China?” positions: east asia cultures critique 18, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 291-320.